Supercharged, Soviet-Carbureted AMC Pacer Dominates 24 Hours of Lemons Races

Not many 24 Hours of LeMons cars have won the top prize of LeMons racing twice, but the 1978 American Motors Corporation Pacer wagon of the Down & Out Race Team managed the feat at the recent B.F.E. GP 24 Hours of Lemons race in Colorado. This car is one of the all-time Legends of Lemons, and— for those of you who can’t make the trek to the most remote 24 Hours of Lemons venue in the entire series and witness this car’s majesty in person— we’re going to explain why.

The Pacer was something of an oddity, even by American Motors standards. Originally planned to have a Wankel engine (which never materialized), the Pacer was strangely wide and bubble-shaped, with the right-side door 4″ longer than the left-side door. The organizers of the 24 Hours of Lemons spent the first six years of the series pleading with teams to race a Pacer in our series (as you might expect, we love American Motors cars on the race track), and our wish was granted in 2012.

Speedycop, creator of some of the greatest Lemons cars we have ever seen, found a 1978 Pacer wagon, caged it, and raced it at the 2012 Southern Discomfort race in South Carolina. After that, Speedycop was just too busy with other projects to campaign the Pacer again, so he sold it to some crazy Coloradans and shipped it 2,000 miles to the west.

Pacer-2012 CO Debut 1
The Pacer’s new team was (aptly) named The Blue Flag Society, and the car showed up at the 2012 B.F.E. GP race sporting flat black paint and helicopter rotors on the roof.

Pacer-2013 CO 2
Under the hood lurked the car’s original 258-cubic-inch AMC straight-six, rated at 90 horsepower for the 1978 model year. The transmission was (and remains) a Chrysler Torqueflite 3-speed automatic with column shifter.

Pacer-2012 CO Debut 2
The ancient wheels and tires were taken from my 1966 Dodge A100 van project, as AMCs and Chryslers share a wheel-bolt pattern.

Pacer-2012 CO Debut 3
This car was amazingly, painfully stock, down to the factory AM/FM radio with musical-note symbols on the knobs.

Pacer-2102 CO Debut 4
The Blue Flag Special Pacer finished 33rd out of 47 entries, turning 190 laps and exceeding all expectations. During its blistering circuits around the High Plains Raceway track, it beat a BMW 5-Series, a Mustang, an Audi 200, a Datsun Z-Car, a Celica, and a Honda CRX, all cars that nobody would have expected to get passed by a dead-stock Pacer. For this, the Lemons Supreme Court awarded the team the coveted Index of Effluency trophy.

Pacer-2013 CO 1
Pound for pound, the Lemons racers in Colorado build the goofiest, most amazing vehicles we see anywhere in our travels around the country. The Denver region is something of a cultural island for car freaks, with no other major cities for many hundreds of miles in all directions, so the like-minded fabricating Lemons lunatics all know each other and help out with the good projects. The geniuses responsible for such machines as the twin-supercharged, 454-Chevy-powered, Jag-suspension-equipped 1966 Rambler Marlin, the 1950 Dodge pickup with original flathead-six engine, the Renault 4CV with mid-mounted Volkswagen Fox engine, and the mighty road-racing Checker Marathon taxi, among others, pitched in to help prepare the Pacer for the 2013 B.F.E. GP race.

Pacer-2013 CO 3
The mile-high elevation of the race track sapped a lot of the power from the not-very-strong-to-begin-with 258 in that race, and then the motor exploded after just 68 laps. The Blue Flag Special Pacer finished third-from-last in the 58-entry field… but it still beat The Worst Car In Lemons History.

For the Pacer’s fourth Lemons race, the 2014 B.F.E. GP, it boasted new “Official Pacer Car” livery, which looked great. The team’s name was now The Down & Out Race Team.

But that wasn’t all that had changed. In place of the exploded AMC 258 engine went its more modern descendant, the 4.0-liter Jeep six of Cherokee fame. This engine was built through the 2006 model year, and you can find a dozen of them in every Denver-area self-service wrecking yard. The 4.0 is good for 177-190 horsepower, depending on year, but the thin air of the High Plains knocks 15% of that off. What to do? Down & Out Race Team mastermind Brett Holdaway went to the junkyard, grabbed a 50-buck Eaton supercharger off a late-1990s Buick Park Avenue Ultra, and rigged it up to force-feed the Pacer’s hot new engine. Yes, that’s a Hitachi SU carburetor, one-half of the carbs from a Datsun 240Z, feeding the blower.

A supercharged car needs a boost gauge, and the Down & Out Pacer got a serious one. Even with the very undersized Japanese-English carburetor serving as an effective anti-engine-killing device (half of a 2.4-liter engine’s carburetion on a supercharged engine displacing 4.0 liters makes an excellent restrictor plate) and the supercharger set up to deliver a mere 1.5 pounds of boost, the Pacer was still getting at least twice the horsepower at the wheels than it had with the original 258 in effect.

A draw-through carbureted supercharger system can explode real good in the event of an engine backfire, so Brett fabricated this clever anti-backfire relief valve to prevent dangerous underhood explosions.

That weekend, the Pacer was quicker than it had ever been. The team finished 24th out of 42 entries, turning 222 respectably quick laps. The combination of Jeep 4.0 engine, supercharger, restrictive carburetor, and automatic transmission made the car reliable and very easy to drive.

A little while after the race, Brett decided to take the Pacer to Test-n-Tune Night at nearby Bandimere Speedway.

The tech inspectors found the car quite amusing, and its LeMons-spec safety equipment was absurd overkill for the kind of not-quite-warp-drive speeds the car would be able to muster in the quarter-mile.

Spoiler: the motorcycle was quicker.

Under 18 seconds in the quarter-mile isn’t too shabby for a very-slightly-boosted 4.0 Pacer at Bandimere’s 6,000-foot elevation.

At the 2015 B.F.E. GP, the Pacer showed up with no major changes and didn’t have a great race weekend: 42nd place out of 48 entries (it did however, beat three Toyota MR2s and an Acura Integra). For the 2016 B.F.E. GP, the Down & Out Race Team gave the car a makeover, converting into a pretty convincing Robocop 6000 SUX. Coincidentally, a Saab 9-3 also got the 6000 SUX treatment, because this is the 24 Hours of Lemons.

The American Motors 6000 SUX was quicker than ever that race, running lap times only 10-15 seconds slower than the very quickest cars in the field. When the checkered flag came out on Sunday afternoon, Down & Out Race Team had finished 34th out of 59 teams, beating three BMWs, two Hondas, three Toyotas, two Fords, and a Suzuki, among others.

Down & Out team captain Brett (who owns a personal fleet of vehicles ranging from a completely stock 1926 Ford Model T to a Mercedes-Benz OM617-swapped Jeep Comanche to a Cosworth Chevy Vega to a 400-horsepower Datsun 240Z) wanted a bit more power for the 2017 B.F.E. GP race, so he decided that more carburetor was the answer. I recommended an updraft Cessna carb, but he went on eBay and found something even better.

That’s right, a genuine Stalin-era Soviet carburetor, intended for use on a Red Army ГАЗ-69 truck. In our race series, we prefer British cars to German cars, French cars to British cars, and Soviet cars to just about everything. Sure, Brett could have just slapped a Holley on the Pacer and been done with it, but where’s the fun there?

Brett fabricated this tunnel-ram-style intake manifold, with the Hitachi SU (lower carburetor) as the primary and the ГАЗ-69 carb as the secondary. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s a silly idea, perfectly executed.

The team brought in Pete Peterson, the owner of the very-well-traveled Killer ZomBee MGB, from California, and so the Pacer was redecorated to resemble Pete’s finely-tuned British Leyland machine.

With the new Japanese-British-Russian-American fuel-delivery setup, supercharger boost was dialed up to 2.5 pounds, enough to give the engine about the same ambient air pressure as it would get at sea level. This made the Pacer faster than ever before, and the car began to climb up to unheard-of parts of the standings during the first race session on Saturday.

Unfortunately, the Russian carburetor developed some problems on the second day, eventually inhaling a Red Army O-ring and refusing to work properly. Then the homemade water-injection system failed, making the tuning less forgiving. Brett disassembled and reassembled the carburetor many times, and the Pacer kept returning to the fray.

When it was all over, the Down & Out Race Team Pacer had finished in 29th place out of 61 entries, its first-ever finish in the top half of the standings at any race. Meanwhile, Brett and his fellow Down & Outers helped fix at least a dozen of their competitors’ broken cars during the course of the weekend, including several major welding jobs. For all of this, the LeMons Supreme Court awarded the team the top prize, the Index of Effluency.

What’s next for the Pacer? We can’t say, but we promise it will be something unexpected!

Roadkill Fall 2016 Cover